Making complaints in restaurants and food outlets

Going out for a meal should be an enjoyable experience, but if it falls short of expectations you should be aware of your legal rights and how to exercise them. DAS Law’s Samantha Jenkins explains.

11th October 2019

Going out for a meal should be an enjoyable experience, but if it falls short of expectations you should be aware of your legal rights and how to exercise them.

Your consumer rights – laid down under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 – apply to the meal and the service you receive in a restaurant, meaning that the law can protect you and provide remedies if you’ve been let down by your dining experience.

Bad food complaints

When eating at a restaurant, you are entitled to the same rights as any other goods and services you purchase, these rights being that the food should be ‘as described’ and ‘of reasonable quality’.

As soon as you realise that your food is not up to standard, you should stop eating it and complain to a member of staff.

An example of a meal not being as described might be if it did not include some of the ingredients you expected or were promised. Not being of reasonable quality might mean that it is burnt or undercooked. Of course, reasonable quality might mean different things to different people, but in many cases it will be obvious if the food is not up to standard.  

As soon as you realise that your food is not up to standard, you should stop eating it and complain to a member of staff. You can then reject the meal and choose not to have it replaced if you wish.

Alternatively, you can ask for the meal to be ‘repaired’ or ‘replaced’, and therefore ask for a new meal or a replacement item of food. If, for example, you order a well done steak which arrives undercooked, then you can simply ask for a replacement steak which meets the order you placed and therefore meets the terms of the contract agreed.

In the event that the replacement meal or item does not meet the standard you expected then you will have a final opportunity to ‘reject’ the meal.

In the event you reject the meal you should not have to pay for it, although you should of course pay for anything else that you eat or drink. If the restaurant replaces your meal and you are satisfied with its standard then you will need to pay in full for it.

Speak to the manager

If the member of staff serving you is unable to help you with your complaint, you should ask to speak to the manager instead. If you have difficulty persuading the manager that you should not have to pay for an unsatisfactory meal, you have several options available to you.

Pay part of the bill

You could pay part of the bill, minus the amount owed for the food you rejected. If you do this, leave your contact details with the restaurant so they can chase you up for the remaining money if they genuinely believe that you should have paid.

You will subsequently be able to make further objections to the full payment if you feel you should not have to pay.

Pay under protest

Alternatively, you could pay the bill in full, but make it clear that you are paying ‘under protest’ – writing “paying under protest” on the bill itself, keeping a copy of the bill as evidence and giving your contact details to the restaurant.

This will help you to claim a refund at a later date, the first step of which would be to send a letter of complaint to the restaurant manager in which you should fully detail your complaint and the reasons why you believe your money for the unsatisfactory meal should be refunded.

Legal action

In the event that you cannot resolve the matter in this way then you can pursue a breach of contract claim against them through the county court. However, it is unlikely that this would ordinarily be a necessary or worthwhile action to take, in light of the cost and time you may have to dedicate to those legal proceedings.

If you get food poisoning

If you develop food poisoning after eating at a restaurant, this is clearly a more serious matter, and you may be able to claim compensation. It can be hard to prove that you got food poisoning from a specific meal, but if you believe you can, you should gather any evidence required – including a doctor’s report- and make a complaint to the restaurant.

You can claim for the cost of the meal, plus compensation for pain and suffering, any loss of earnings that resulted from your illness and any other financial losses you incurred as a result of the food poisoning.

Hygiene concerns

Food should always be prepared in clean and hygienic conditions. If you are concerned that food is not being stored or prepared properly, that the people handling the food are unclean, or that the premises where the food is being served are dirty or in bad condition, you may be able to argue that the food is not of satisfactory quality and ask for a refund.

You may also want to contact your local environmental health department, who will be able to inspect whether the restaurant is meeting hygiene standards under the law.

Bad service complaints

Sometimes, dining out can be ruined not by the food itself but by the poor service provided by the waiting staff. Fortunately, your consumer rights still apply in these circumstances.

If the service was poor, you can refuse to pay a service charge, even if it is considered compulsory and was stated upfront. However, you must pay the remainder of the bill.

The relevant parts of the law state that any service must be done “with reasonable care and skill” and “within a reasonable time”. This covers problems such as being treated poorly by staff or experiencing lengthy waits with no obvious cause before being served.

Bear in mind that “reasonable” can mean different things depending on the situation. For example, you would be expected to wait longer for your food during the dinner rush than if you were sitting in an otherwise empty café at 3pm. Likewise, the quality of service in a burger bar would not be expected to match that of a high-class restaurant.

How to complain

If you encounter poor service at a restaurant, you should make a complaint to the staff member who has been responsible for serving you, and ask to speak to the manager if you do not consider their response acceptable.

How your complaint is handled is at the discretion of the restaurant. You may be offered a discount on your bill or free drinks or desserts, for example.

If the service was poor, you can refuse to pay a service charge, even if it is considered compulsory and was stated upfront. However, you must pay the remainder of the bill, as you cannot refuse to pay for food you’ve eaten simply because the service was poor.

If the restaurant is unhappy with your refusal to pay the service charge, you can leave them your contact details to show that you are not simply trying to get out of paying the bill. They can then get in touch with you for the rest of the money later, though you may wish to contest this further.

Alternatively, as above, you could choose to pay “under protest”, noting this on the bill, retaining a copy as evidence, and then contact the restaurant with a letter of complaint later, asking for a refund due to the bad service.

Pricing complaints

You should only be charged the price stated on the menu for your food, though other fees, such as service charges, may be added to the bill. If you find that you have been overcharged, you can ask to have the prices reduced to those listed on the menu.

If the restaurant does not display its prices, you should not be charged more than a “reasonable amount” for the food.

If the restaurant does not display its prices, you should not be charged more than a “reasonable amount” for the food. Exactly what is reasonable can sometimes be a matter of opinion, but it will sometimes be apparent that you are being overcharged in light of the standard or quality of food which has been provided.

If a compulsory service charge is stated upfront, whether in writing or verbally, this is considered part of your agreement with the restaurant. By eating there you have accepted that you will pay the charge, unless the service turns out to be unacceptably bad (see ‘poor service’ above).

However, if a service charge pops up on your bill unexpectedly, you are not required to pay it and can ask for it to be reduced or removed entirely. This kind of service charge can only ever be considered voluntary, even if the restaurant states otherwise, as you were not informed of it before dining and therefore have not agreed to pay it.

Reservations and double-booking

If you have reserved a table at a restaurant but they have double-booked and you don’t get to eat there, you could look to claim compensation for this. You may be able to claim for any direct financial loss which arises as a result of your inability to dine at the restaurant.

This could include the cost of the journey to the restaurant and the cost of having to travel elsewhere and any additional money which you have spent elsewhere as a result of the failed booking.

It may be possible in some cases, to claim for distress or inconvenience caused if, for example, the meal was for a special occasion. However this claim may be limited and difficult to establish.

Free drinking water

Under the Licensing Act 2003, any establishment which serves alcoholic drinks must also supply free tap water to customers. In restaurants where alcohol is not on sale, however, there is no requirement for them to supply free drinking water. They may charge you for water or not offer it at all.

Toilet facilities

Any restaurant serving alcoholic drinks, or which is open after 11pm, must have toilets available for the use of customers. Those which do not meet these criteria are not necessarily required to have toilet facilities available for customers, though they are advised to do so and some local authorities may also require it.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created. Note that the information was accurate at the time of publication but laws may have since changed.

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